Understanding Society

Women’s voices, women’s vote: The 2018 Irish Abortion Referendum

A quiet revolution

Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, called the 2018 referendum vote to legalise abortion a “quiet revolution.” Thirty-five years after 67% of the public voted in favour of a constitutional ban on abortion, the public reversed its decision, with 66% voting in favour of allowing abortion up to 12 weeks.

Opinion on abortion was slow to change. Only five years previously, a poll by the Irish Times and Ipsos MRBI found that the Irish public were not in favour of abortion “when a woman deems it to be in her best interest.” And a year before the referendum, an Ipsos MRBI poll found that while most people were in favour of significant changes to Ireland’s abortion laws, when asked if abortion should be available “under any circumstances, i.e. available on request,” 67% said no.

Support then grew but appeared to fall back again. An Ipsos MRBI poll for the Irish Times in April 2018 showed support at 63% in favour of legalising abortion, but one month later, only 10 days before the referendum, support had slipped to 58%.

The polls were telling us that this referendum was going to be close – so why the overwhelming result?

The power of voices

In part, the result was the outcome of a democratic process that put citizens at the centre of decision-making. A Citizens’ Assembly was established in 2016 and tasked 99 ordinary Irish citizens to deliberate the constitutional ban on abortion. Voices – including expert testimony and submissions from the public – were heard, and the principles of fairness in treatment of differing voices and equality of voice among members were at the heart of the Assembly’s debate. In the end, the Assembly was able to break through political deadlock and reach consensus, recommending to repeal and replace the constitutional provision on abortion.

In the era of #MeToo and social movements in Ireland, the significance of the abortion vote was felt by the young women of Ireland. Irish women living overseas documented their journey home to Ireland to cast their vote. The #hometovote shared stories of Irish women coming from the US, Australia, and other countries.

The referendum campaign took a big shift in the last few days as more and more women bravely shared their emotional accounts of travelling to Britain, alone, to terminate their pregnancies. Stories were shared of girls as young as 16 taking abortion pills, alone, in their bedrooms.

In a post-referendum poll, Ipsos MRBI found that 39% of the general public felt discussion had the most influence on the outcome of the vote. Discussion on social media was mentioned by 24% – just behind televised debates at 25% – and discussion in pubs, at work or at home received 15% of mentions. Women’s voices – amplified by social media – had a powerful impact on the result.

These stories also added to the emotional impact of the vote. Women came out in their thousands to vote in the abortion referendum. When compared to exit polling data from the 2017 general election, an Ipsos MRBI exit poll on behalf of the Irish Times showed that there was a 95% increase in female voters aged 18-24. This compares with a 1% decrease in male voters of the same age30 . While young women came out in force, the magnitude of the vote was felt by women and men of all ages. Ipsos MRBI researchers observed how some women left the polling stations teary-eyed, overwhelmed by the significance of the vote.

While young women came out in force, the magnitude of the vote was felt by women and men of all ages

Women of all ages, sisters, mothers, daughters spoke, and, the people of Ireland listened to the experiences of women. The revolution wasn’t really so quiet after all.

Ireland’s history of abortion

Abortion was first made illegal in Ireland in 1861 and became part of constitutional law in 1983, when Ireland voted overwhelmingly (67%) in favour of a constitutional ban on abortion31 .

Since 1980, over 170,000 women and girls travelled from Ireland to access abortion services overseas32 , while others bought abortion pills online.

Susan Huggins
Ipsos Ireland